A first-hand account of the City Hall assassination of James Davis

I was sitting quietly at the press table in the front of the City Council Chamber, just waiting for the meeting to begin. Instead all hell broke loose.

I was startled by a loud bang. I didn’t know what it was, or where it came from, but it was frightening.

I don’t know if someone yelled “Balcony!” or if I just happened to look up, but I saw a man in a suit, to the left of center on the balcony, firing a silver gun at what I though was probably a person on the floor directly to his left. My attention riveted on the gun, but I was aware of people scrambling to flee the balcony.

After seeing what looked like an execution taking place, and then hearing the sound of many more shots reverberating off the chamber walls, I thought, “Oh my God, can this really be happening?”

All kinds of things, like the Columbine shootings, came flooding into my mind.

I thought that this man—and maybe several others—was good and mad about something and decided to make a statement by coming to a city council meeting and opening fire.

Since he was shooting someone in the gallery, instead of firing down on the council members, I thought he must be a random shooter who was starting with the person next to him and then would simply continue picking off anyone he happened to aim at.

Shots ring fire again

I also became quickly aware of a Black man in a nice suit standing, maybe 10 feet away from me, near the door to the committee room that opened off of the main chamber. I thought he was probably a plain clothes police officer, because I’d noticed earlier that he was wearing an earphone with a curly wire. I was astounded that, instead of taking cover behind a desk nearby and firing from there, he was standing right up there, an open target, as big and bold as you please, firing at the gunman in the gallery. He was so cool and controlled—maybe the only person who was—and shooting with amazing accuracy, it turns out.

As I later learned he was officer—now Detective—Richard Burt, of New York City. His awesome courage and excellent marksmanship probably saved lives.

As my mind was registering these things, I was attempting to understand what was going on, and at the same time, trying to figure out what to do so I wouldn’t get killed.

I think I heard someone shout “Get down!” so I dove for the floor under the middle row of press tables. I kicked off my shoes thinking this was no time to be wearing high heels.

As the shots continued to ring out, I tried to see if my body was really covered by the table and also—without sticking my head out to look around—whether there were more gunmen on the main chamber floor who might come down to the front, find me there and shoot me.

I could see that there were other people crawling to get to the committee room door, and I tried to think which would be safer: to remain where I was or make a break for the door myself.

One of the things going through my mind was that to get through the door,

I would have to run near the officer. The shooter (or shooters) might turn in his direction to take him out, and, if I was running past him, they might decide to shot me, or else a stray bullet could hit me.

As I strained to make sense of what I was hearing, I didn’t think that I heard any bullets hitting our area. I decided to crawl under the press table to the position closest to the door and then make a dash for it.

The distance to the door was only about nine feet, and it took mere seconds to traverse it, but as I sprinted, I was petrified. I felt totally vulnerable and my legs seemed so weak I wasn’t sure if I could make it.

I did make it though, and Councilmember Charles Barron was standing right inside the entrance. He probably recognized a look of terror in my eyes, so, very kindly, he sort-of caught me by the arms and quietly warned me against panicking and running. I said I wouldn’t.

I came all the way inside the room, but instead of being assured that now I was safe, I still felt that, at any moment, something else could happen—like more gunmen bursting into the room and starting to cut us all down

I looked around for something to hide behind. I found a chair in front of a window with floor-length drapes and crouched down behind it, thinking I was small enough that I could also try hiding behind them, if necessary.

As I crouched, I noticed for the first time that I was shaking like a leaf and panting. Within a very short time, however, I began to feel much less frightened, because it was becoming apparent that it was a lone gunman and that the shooting had stopped.

In the room with me, there were between 60 and 70 Council members, city council staffers, and a few members of the general public, most of them on their cell phones. We didn’t know what had happened or what was being done, so, as time passed, we kept asking each other what we knew.

Getting word

The first time I had any idea that Councilmember James Davis had lost his life was when a young woman said she thought one of the officers had said something about a person named “Davies” being shot. I said that there is a Councilmember Davis. She responded that that could be the name.

I was heartbroken to hear this, for I thought right away that it was likely true. I knew James Davis was a retired police officer, and I could very easily imagine him trying to stop the gunman and and being gunned down himself.

As rumor turned into definite knowledge that James Davis had indeed been killed, I was shaken and grief stricken. I was friendly with James Davis and often quoted him in my articles, including, “Examining White Privilege: What Is It and How Does It Show Itself?” We wanted to see if I could be invited to conduct this workshop at the academy, as a means of combating racism in the police department.

After being detained in the room for about two hours, like everyone else, I made my statement to a police officer. Then I was free to go.

Final picture

Once outside, I learned for sure that the person who shot James was a political rival, Othniel Askew, whom Davis had brought with him into City Hall. Then it began to dawn on me that not only had I taken what was probably the last photo of Councilmember Davis alive, I had done so along with the man who had killed him!

Here’s what happened:

While the proclamation ceremonies were going on, before the actual council meeting, I left the chamber, with my camera, in search of a councilmember whom I wanted to photograph for another article. As I was coming down the stairwell, in the rotunda, I saw Rev. Lucille Chambers Hill, who had just been awarded a proclamation in recognition of her outstanding career as a minister, educator and choreographer of liturgical dance. She and several friends were posing on the landing and James Davis was photographing them.

I automatically assumed that Davis must be taking the photo because Rev. Hill was a constituent or a personal friend of his. Therefore, I said to him, “Why don’t you get in and I’ll take a picture of all of you together?” He answered, “Oh, they wouldn’t want me in their picture.” But the ladies assured him that they would, so he handed me the little camera and went up to pose with them.

I expected to take a photo first with the camera he had been using and then with mine, but the man who was with Davis took the camera from me. Therefore, he and I stood there, shoulder to shoulder, each taking a photo. It was chilling to realize later that within 15 minutes, James Davis would be dead, and at the hand of the same man who had been standing next to me.

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